Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi writing has predicted (and inspired) innovations from cryptocurrency to Alexa. His seminal 1992 novel Snow Crash described a dystopian future of corporate city-states in which a hacking underclass hides from reality in a virtual world known as the Metaverse. Some of the book’s concepts—including avatars, virtual reality goggles, massively multiplayer online games, and destructive computer viruses—are part of our everyday experience today.
From 1999 to 2006, Stephenson was an early employee at Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin and later moved to Magic Leap, a VR startup that raised nearly $4 billion. He has denied being Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin.
Last year, Stephenson and crypto pioneer Peter Vessenes co-founded Lamina1, a company that uses blockchain technology to build an “open and expansive” metaverse along the lines of the author’s 30 years ago.
What is your favorite current definition of the metaverse?
There are a lot of people in there. You can interact with them in real time no matter where they are. They are represented by audiovisual bodies called avatars and they share experiences that are fictional in nature. They are in fictional rooms and doing fictional things.
It’s not all a uniform walled garden. There are different parts of it, created and maintained by different people, and the central metaphor for moving from one of these experiences to the next is movement through a virtual space. So there is a map, and experiences have fixed locations on that map. You can teleport, you can move very quickly, but there’s always a sense that you’re in an agreed upon specific place in a larger universe.
If that is the definition, I would argue that there is currently no metaverse.
If we talk about the original conception [of the metaverse], let’s go back to the late 1980s. It was before Doom [the breakthrough 3D shooting game], which came out a year after the release of Snow Crash (1992). Doom has accomplished things I never thought possible in the next 10 years. That sparked an entire industry. So where do we stand 30 years later? [that] The gaming industry is the economic engine and the technological engine that will obviously be the basis for any future metaverse.
I don’t have a big master plan for my life. I tend to take things as they come
Do people know that when they play a video game, they tiptoe into the metaverse?
I would guess that most just play the game. I think people who spend a lot of time playing games, especially multiplayer online games, get used to the idea of moving in shared three-dimensional spaces. This is clearly the most fundamental idea of the metaverse.
They recently co-founded Lamina1, which uses blockchain technology to build a kind of fundamental layer for the metaverse. What made you go beyond writing and defining this concept and actually developing one?
I don’t have a big master plan for my life. I tend to take things as they come. In 2020 I left Magic Leap. I had learned a lot about game engines. I’ve also worked in the field of virtual production: how to use game engine technology to turn stories into linear entertainment. So the ingredients were there. At the end of 2021 the whole Metaverse thing exploded and I had the opportunity to develop some of the underlying mechanics to help Metaverse creators do their job in a way that I felt aligned with the vision in my book.
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Epic Games developed Fortnite and is now expanding its Metaverse platform Unreal Engine. Why build the platform first?
Whatever I build, even if it’s incredibly successful, will be a small part of a larger metaverse, and that might not be successful. So it would be the wrong way to roll the dice on being able to create an experience in a reasonable time. A smarter approach is to create an underlying infrastructure, which I think needs to be created anyway, and that should then allow a lot of people to try and build things.
Once the platform gets going, there is value. To use your Epic example, Fortnite’s value to Epic is more than just the revenue the game brings in. It’s also a way to “track” their own technology. [tech start-ups call testing their own product “eating your own dog food”] and showing people what technology is capable of in ways that might not be possible if they handled everything through independent third-party relationships.
Do you use this basis to establish the traffic rules for the Metaverse?
I think the base layer is more about enabling and making things available than deciding how things should be. People can come over later and do that. There are a number of basic capabilities that I think the metaverse needs to have at a technical level that aligns fairly well with what blockchains are capable of. So a typical Metaverse experience will involve being in a virtual space, it will have avatars. The avatars will have hair, clothes and accessories. You will be in a space that is lit and textured and shaded and populated by trees, furniture, buildings and whatever.
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It’s possible to do all of this in a completely centralized way, where a designer makes every detail of that experience, and we have that in games. But I think to build a metaverse, we’re going to have a situation where people are moving freely from one environment to another, so it’s all going to get mixed up. My outfit, magic sword and whatever will travel with me from one environment to another. So suddenly my code, my IP – which ended up being created by a whole bunch of different designers and content creators who don’t even know each other – is traveling with me to different environments. To me, this all reeks of some sort of decentralized network of interactions and financial transactions that reminds me of blockchain and other “DeFi.” [decentralised finance] types of constructs.
How soon do you expect this metaverse to be something we all visit on a daily basis?
There will not be a metaverse used by millions of people until it contains experiences that millions of people find worthwhile, and having those experiences is quite difficult. The game I’ve played the most over the past year is Valheim, which started as an incredibly small group. However, they synthesized a world: all sorts of immaterial elements came together in a workable way.
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What do you like about Valheim?
A lot is art direction. It’s a beautiful game. It has great music, great sound effects, and a bit of humor. The aspect that appeals to me is that you are completely alone in this world. Every time you start a new game, an entirely new, randomly generated world emerges algorithmically, and it’s huge. Unless you invite someone, you can explore this world as you please and never have to interact with another human.
Something generated by AI seems comparable to something produced by a human, which is why people are so excited. But you don’t have this consciousness to communicate with the Creator
Do we need a headset to experience the Metaverse?
The reality is that millions are constantly experiencing 3D worlds through flat screens, so obviously that’s going to be a big part of it, and it should be. However, I have nothing to complain about headsets. It will be both.
The Metaverse hype in Silicon Valley is currently taking a back seat to artificial intelligence.
It’s nice to let KI have their moment in the sun because it takes time. The hype cycle moves fast, but the engineering doesn’t. Technology takes time. If you try to develop at the same pace as the hype cycle, it won’t work. I’m thinking of AI in terms of supply and demand. We already have an abundance of images: every website is plastered with them. So the ability for anyone to create hundreds of new images and upload them to their social media feeds is not interesting to me. Scarcity fosters quality, and AI art lacks scarcity, so tends to lack quality.
So not considering using ChatGPT as a co-pilot for writing your next novel?
My theory is that when we experience art – be it a video game, a Da Vinci painting or a film – we make a huge number of micro-decisions made by the artists for specific reasons. That’s how we communicate with these artists and it’s really important. Something generated by AI seems comparable to something produced by a human, which is why people are so excited. But you don’t have this consciousness to communicate with the Creator. Remove that and it’s hollow and uninteresting. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023